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Symbolic world of house and home


In psychoanalysis, the house is almost always a symbol of the self.

Writers had cottoned on to this long before Freud and Jung: houses generally reflect the character of their occupants in both adult and children's literature. Thus, interpretations of houses by book illustrators do not depict simply the architectural zeitgeist, they also reflect prevailing social and cultural assumptions as well as providing psychological insights.

Alan Powers explores all of these resonances in 'Houses in Children's Books', the exhibition he has devised and curated at the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture. The exhibition occupies two rooms: in the first there are various examples of book illustrations, divided into categories such as 'Tales of Mystery and Imagination', 'Art of Living', 'Disorderly Houses, Dysfunctional Families'; in the second there is a wonderful collection of original prints, including some stunning Tenniel illustrations for Through the Looking Glass.

Among the principal themes in the first room is the house as embodiment of comfort, security and stability, exemplified by the books of Beatrix Potter. Powers has some fun here, describing The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse as 'a story about homes as private feminine space', and the doll's house in The Tale of Two Bad Mice as an 'emblem of alien urban civilisation and class aspiration for two mice who invade and damage it'.

Sometimes the house itself is the main character, as in Lucy Boston's Green Knowe stories. More often it is simply a reliable, unchanging place where adventures begin and end, as in the 'Tim' series by Edward Ardizzone - children leave home to seek experience of the world (signifying the beginnings of their journey towards adulthood; ultimately they will have to leave home and the safety of childhood permanently), and return home older and wiser after their adventures. Similarly, cellars frequently represent a journey into the unconscious: children go down to the cellar, undergo some kind of transforming experience, and then return to the security and normality upstairs (or occasionally don't . . . ).

Another recurrent theme is the house invaded by strangers and upset or damaged (Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat; William Nicholson's The Pirate Twins), where the invaders represent the child's alter ego, and the disorder they create symbolises the child's tacit desire to overturn the rules and constraints imposed upon them by the adult world. But order is restored at the end - the child desires excitement and adventure but always needs to return to the stability of home.

The pervasive depiction of the house as the embodiment of comfort and security is rarely contravened in children's literature - maybe that would be just too subversive. Even though we know the family home can be anything but safe and stable for children, we seem to prefer to hold on to the traditional image.

Here only Joan Aiken's 'James III' series portrays the house itself as threatening and unreliable (though even here there is at least a 'safe' treehouse).

One senses that Powers finds these psychological themes more fascinating than the overt architectural and social ones - a preference I suspect most visitors may share. This is perhaps most apparent in the section 'Teaching History, Teaching Taste', which gives some examples of how books of different periods have tried to explain to children the history of houses and of architecture. For instance, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry's Architecture for Children (1944) is described as appealing to the 'rational child' (is there such a thing? ) and 'argues the inevitable development of modern architecture from social conditions and technology'.

The books in this category are undoubtedly fascinating in their details of, and insights into, the architectural, social and cultural assumptions of their time. Yet they do not have anything like the emotional power of the fictional books, which subtly evoke deep-rooted impressions and sensations of house and home. Maybe that's why 'rational' attempts to transform popular taste have always struggled to convince - the images in our collective unconscious just go too deep.

Throughout the exhibition, Powers' wry and perceptive commentary illuminates, amuses and occasionally provokes. At first I felt that his approach was possibly too sketchy, with not enough space for the text to tackle the themes in sufficient depth. But gradually I found that it encouraged active participation, prompting the visitor to recall similar examples from his/her own childhood reading, perhaps question Powers' interpretation or his choice of category, and generally setting off trains of thought. This is a captivating subject that cries out for deeper analysis - as another visitor remarked, 'Where's the catalogue?'.

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